What’s the difference between leather and bonded leather? What’s eco-leather? What’s faux leather? All valid questions. With all these different names for various types of natural and manufactured upholsteries, it can be tough to determine what’s what. That’s why we’re breaking it all down in this guide to leather.

Not all grades of leather and faux leather are created equal. There are a few important distinctions to consider:

  • Full-Grain Leather shows the natural grain of the leather and is the highest grade for office furniture.

  • Top-Grain Leather is the most common and remains thinner and more flexible than full-grain leather.

  • Split Leather is made from the remainder of the hide once the top grain is removed.

  • Bonded Leather utilizes leftover leather scraps to create a new product over a layer of faux leather.

  • Polyurethane is a synthetic product that can look very similar to actual leather.

  • Vinyl is another synthetic material that is easy to clean and inexpensive.

  • Faux Leather typically refers to polyurethane, vinyl, or other man-made materials.

Full-Grain Leather Office Chairs

Full-grain leather hides show their grain, including any natural marks and imperfections. Layers of leather are left underneath the hide, leaving the leather in a state that is as close to its natural form as possible. It can breathe, and it’s very durable. Eventually, it will develop a patina from interacting with the air. Full-grain leather is the most expensive, and it’s used to upholster furniture of the highest quality.

Top-Grain Leather Office Chairs

Top-grain leather is the most common type used in high-end upholstered furniture. The split layer of the hide is removed, leaving the material thinner and more flexible than full-grain leather. The resulting hide is then sanded to create an even, smooth texture. If dyes are used, they are added after sanding, and a finish coat is applied for durability. Not only is top-grain leather more affordable than full-grain, but it is also more resistant to stains.

Split Leather Office Chairs

Split leather is made from the layer of the hide that is left once the top-grain portion has been removed. Hides are shaved horizontally into different layers, so a tannery gets several sheets of leather product from just one hide. The split portion of the hide has an artificial layer applied, which is then embossed with a grain to simulate the look of top-grain leather. It’s still leather made from a real hide; however, it is often found on very affordably-priced items. Split leather is also used to create suede.

Bonded Leather Office Chairs

Bonded leather is neither fish nor fowl, as they say. The manufacturing process starts with real leather scraps—the leftover pieces that would normally become waste from tanneries. These are sent to a mill that grinds them into very small pieces, and the pieces are then spray-glued onto the back of a manufactured material such as polyurethane. This makes the back of the upholstery feel like suede, and this backing can also affect how the material upholsters. When bonded leather is made with a good polyurethane material, it can be difficult to tell the difference between it and real leather.

Bonded leather is far less expensive than real leather, but marketers can use the word leather in their descriptive materials because of its real leather content. Some call it recycled leather or eco-friendly leather because the manufacturing process is more environmentally-friendly than leather production, which uses several harsh chemicals.

Polyurethane Office Chairs

Polyurethane is used to create imitation leather, sometimes called pleather (plastic leather), synthetic leather, or faux leather. It can be embossed with any texture, and it’s water-resistant and easy to clean and maintain. Good quality polyurethane can feel very soft and look a lot like leather. To tell the difference, look at the back of the material—if you see a woven fabric backing, it’s manufactured.

Vinyl Office Chairs

Many of us are familiar with vinyl, another man-made material. Vinyl is generally water-resistant and easy to wipe clean, so it’s often used to upholster furniture for breakrooms, high-traffic reception or lounge areas, and some office seating. It is usually embossed to simulate a leather grain or dyed with a pattern that looks like leather. Like polyurethane, vinyl has a woven backing. In its common form, it is one of the lowest-cost upholstery materials and often found on budget-priced furniture.

Antimicrobial vinyl is commonly used in hospitals and other healthcare facilities due to its easy-to-clean design. The textile is treated with a long-lasting antimicrobial solution that makes it highly resistant to the growth of germs and bacteria. It can be cleaned and disinfected with strong, hospital-grade disinfectants while retaining its original color and appearance. 

Check for specific instructions from your furniture manufacturer regarding which cleaning solutions are appropriate for your specific type of upholstery, and check out our complete guide to office chair cleaning here.


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